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Posts Tagged ‘brian cox’

Brian Cox is great. Hey, I can’t always be controversial. He is. He’s doing so much to get people interested in cool sciencey stuff, with his Wonders series and the BBC Stargazing thing and whatnot. The first time I saw him in person was at his lecture for 2009’s TAM London, and it was also the first and only time I’ve felt like I was starting to get my head around this whole Standard Model business.

It's so beautiful... What does it mean?

But I’m wondering about something. Critical thinking blogger Crispian Jago recently recounted a thing on Twitter which, without his kind permission, I’m going to share with you now:

The tale of science communicator and the fortean in 4 short tweets…

Despite liking astronomy my father-in-law believes we never landed on the moon and the world will end in 2012

On Monday he tuned into to BBC Stargazing live just as Brian was talking about moon landing denial

Brian said something to the effect of all the idiots who believe we never landed on the moon will be watching ITV

Apparently my father-in-law muttered “fuck you Cox” and promptly switched to ITV.

So Brian was completely right

Now, first of all, the theory that the NASA Moon landings were faked is utterly ridiculous. The reasons people cite for doubting the accepted story cannot possibly be grounded in a thorough and intellectually honest assessment of the evidence. There’s a lot of idiocy surrounding the conspiracy theories, without a doubt.

Brian’s antipathy to such piffle while he’s trying to talk about real and interesting science is understandable. There are countless fascinating things awaiting to be learnt about the Moon and mankind’s efforts to visit it, without being distracted by such fatuous and implacably recurrent drivel.

On a similar note, Stephen Fry once went so far as to ban anyone who believes in astrology from watching his interesting-factoid-based quiz show QI. Once again, I can entirely sympathise with the frustration.

And yet…

And yet while it undoubtedly does succinctly communicate an important scientific point to dismiss astrology or Moon-landing hoaxery as worthless bullshit, it’s not the only thing we need to do to fix the problem that millions of people still believe it.

In the case of Crispian’s father-in-law, I don’t know whether he’d be open to learning more about why he’s so badly wrong about everything, or whether he’s so firmly committed to his preferred nonsense that no approach, however diplomatic, will ever shake him from it. But insofar as Brian was absolutely right about him, it feels like a fairly hollow victory.

Some people will cite a few individual bits of trivia about the flag on the Moon waving even though there’s no wind to blow it. Some people will point to the time their horoscope told them to expect a financial windfall, and they found a fiver on the pavement. Some people will laud a homeopathic preparation for curing their headache, after about the length of time during which headaches will normally go away.

And although it might not always be possible, I don’t want these people to switch over to another channel and be wrong somewhere else nearly as much as I want them to understand why these are terrible and unconvincing arguments.

I don’t want to sound too censorious here. Brian Cox really is great at talking about important stuff in a way that’s engaging and makes sense, and part of that should sometimes involve calling out irrelevant bollocks that doesn’t deserve any further attention.

But it’s worth remembering what the real victories of science communication are, when considering people who believe the wrong things. Maybe they’re just not right yet.

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If you’re not regularly listening to The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC Radio 4 show about science hosted by Robin Ince and Brian Cox, then you are an execrable excuse for a human specimen and I despise every molecule in your worthless body.

Sorry. Bit harsh. I don’t mean that. But you should listen to it, it’s really good. There’s a free podcast. Go on, try it.

The latest episode featured, among other guests, comedian Katy Brand. She wasn’t by any means anti-science, but she may have thought that the others on the show sometimes went a bit far with their ideas on science’s scope and importance. For instance, when Brian Cox described science as:

the means by which we… come to the best possible view, given the available data and the understanding of a particular issue or question,

she thought this should be amended to “the best possible scientific view”. Brian disagreed, and I’m basically on his side; when it comes to establishing the correctness of facts about the world, any view that hasn’t been reached scientifically doesn’t even seem worth considering. But Katy Brand was making a more thoughtful point than the tedious post-modern idea of science just being “one belief system among many”, all equally valid.

She told a story about someone she knew of, who’d always start the day by reading her horoscope. This person didn’t believe in any of the nonsense often put forward to justify astrology, and was well aware it was bunk, but tended to find that:

If I read my horoscope in the morning, I have a better day.

It was an entirely psychological effect, as well this person knew, but it was a real one. Katy thought that this was something which science can’t really involve itself in. Science misses the fact that “people find ways of pragmatically getting through their day… and science doesn’t have to be involved in that”.

She’s partly right. But science does have a responsibility to be involved to some extent. It is sort of obliged to point out that astrology is bunk. But the person Katy was telling this story about knows that it’s bunk. She and science are in complete accord there. If she’s not claiming anything implausibly supernatural, but is merely acting in a way she’s discovered benefits her, then rationality is completely on her side. Science isn’t going to snatch the newspaper out of her hand. Some scientists might not appreciate people’s pragmatic attempts to deal with the world at large, but science itself has no problems with it.

One of the other guests a little later brought up another point about the unique power of science to help us understand the world – it was either geneticist Steve Jones or other geneticist Paul Nurse, I’m afraid I’m not sure whose voice it was. At any rate, somebody brought up some some interesting data:

Children who are born in July and August… are worse at athletics, do less well in school, and have a higher rate of suicide than children born at other times of the year.

This is a genuine effect, and although there may be some variance and dispute over exactly what months have the greatest effect on what factors, there’s some sort of real phenomenon going on.

As the links in that paragraph explain, we have some ideas about why this might be. Primarily, it’s to do with the fixed cut-off point for being placed in a particular school year. Given that a new batch of children ascends to each new grade level once a year, the youngest in each class will be nearly a full twelve months younger than their oldest fellows. This can make a big difference to interaction among peers when you’re young, and results in some kids being disadvantaged in a number of unfair ways.

Katy Brand argued that, valid though the scientific explanation for this state of affairs may be, “it doesn’t help that individual person cope with the fact of their birth”. They might need a “different solution” to the problems they face – such as, presumably, reading their nonsense horoscopes.

The final edit of the show didn’t really respond to this in a way I found satisfying, which is why I’ve written all this and dragged you through this whole tedious escapade. The horoscope-reader Katy mentioned earlier is not at all at odds with a scientific approach, as I described. She may have been arguing that some people need to believe their horoscopes, as some kind of emotional crutch, which I don’t agree with at all. I certainly support a humane understanding of why some people might feel that way, but science still has a responsibility to improve the accuracy of our collective worldview as best it can, and calling out the bunk of astrology is a necessary part of that.

But, perhaps more importantly, I’d argue that being scientific is the most useful way we can help people who’ve been disadvantaged by, say, this birth-month school business. Because once we understand what’s going on, then we have the capacity to examine how the system can be improved, and come up with ways to effect real change.

If we guessed it was because of their star sign, and didn’t use science to work out the answer, then our ability to help make anything better for anyone is seriously impaired. If we’d kept assuming illness is caused by demonic influence, we’d have no modern medicine; it doesn’t help a sick person cope with the fact of their smallpox for science to tell them that there are these tiny invisible things called “viruses” inside them, but science can unquestionably help in a way nothing else can.

In conclusion, we should all be listening to more Radio 4. It’s quite entertaining, even if you don’t believe in Sandi Toksvig.

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Tomorrow, September 10th 2008, the Large Hadron Collider will be switched on.

More precisely, tomorrow a beam of particles will (we hope) be circulated throughout the entire collider for the first time. The first particle beams were initiated about a month ago, to calibrate the whole mechanism to an accuracy of under a billionth of a second. It’ll be another month or so before the first “high-energy” collisions take place, when individual protons (of which your body contains around ten billion billion billion) will be accelerated to over 99.9999% of the speed of light, and then smashed into each other.

To do this requires over 1,600 magnets, and about 96 tonnes of liquid helium to keep them less than two degrees above absolute zero. Once the protons are at top speed, they can traverse the 17-mile circumference of the collider over ten thousand times in a second. They also weigh 7,000 times more (or, rather, have a mass 7,000 times greater) and perceive time itself 7,000 times slower (inasmuch as a proton can “perceive” anything) than if they were just sitting still, due to some freaky Einsteinian shit.

When these two particles, each about one millionth of one millionth of a millimetre across, smash into each other, some unfathomably clever people will peer closely at what happens, and use the information they gather to work out things like what makes stuff have gravity, how many dimensions of space there really are, and what the universe was like 13.7 billion years ago or so, around a trillionth of a second after every piece of matter in existence was concentrated in an infinitely dense point.

Fucking hell.

I was planning the bulk of this entry to be a rant about people who think the world’s about to end, but I can’t be bothered. Every day for the last couple of weeks, a dozen or so people have been finding my entry Nostradamus Potter and the Deathly Hadron Collider. The search terms “nostradamus all should leave geneva”, “10 september 2008 black hole nostradamus”, “swiss collider nostradamos”, “nostradamus prediction on lhc”, and several others, all very similar, have led people there just today. But I’m much more interested and mind-boggled by the facts about what this machine is, and what it can do. And there’s no conceivable threat based on any actual scientific ideas. I think the people who’ve built this damn thing actually understand how it works, and what it’s going to do, a little more clearly than the people whose protests amount to “Science is scary!” and “Did someone say black holes? Oh noes!” and “But what if they’re wrong?!?”

It seems like a threat because the unknown is scary, and apparently very very small things are scary too. Talk about nanotechnology, and it’s hard to go long without making the mental leap to the idea of tiny robots getting out of control, turning everything into tiny copies of themselves, or some such. It’s an effective horror trope, but worrying about the whole planet being destroyed because you’ve heard someone mention something about black holes (which is as complex as most people’s worries get) is about as useful as using disposable surgical gloves to take your laptop to be disinfected with bleach because it has a virus. Smarter people than me have explained this. Also, Brian Cox thinks you’re a twat. This cartoon is about as likely. You can all stop threatening to kill the scientists who are orders of magnitude cleverer than you and trying to figure out how the Universe works now.

To infer the existence of the Higgs boson would be an awfully big adventure.

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